The United States government is poised to release regulations that allow fish farmed in the open ocean to be labeled “organic.” This is a bad idea. Farming fish at sea can never meet the high bar of integrity that is integral to all organic systems of production. The Center for Food Safety’s new report, Like Water and Oil: Ocean-Based Fish Farming and Organic Don’t Mix, details with scientific rigor the four main reasons why. These reasons are explained below:
First, in open-ocean fish farms inputs and outputs cannot be monitored or controlled. That means that farmed fish can be exposed to toxic, synthetic substances that are present in seawater and ocean sediment, such as mercury, PCBs, and even radionuclides that can freely flow into fish farms. In fact, farmed fish has been documented to accumulate higher concentrations of some contaminants than wild fish. Concentrated fish feces, uneaten food, and other inputs also pollute the water that flows out of fish farms, altering marine habitats and changing the feeding behavior, physiology, and health of wild fish. This environmental degradation runs counter to the organic law.
Second, farmed fish routinely escape from open-ocean facilities in large numbers—over 24 million have been reported in just two decades. They carry pathogens and diseases, restructure food webs through the introduction of non-native species, and can lead to the extinction of wild fish in certain areas. These disruptions in marine ecosystems violate some of the basic tenets of organic farming, which include promoting ecological balance and conserving biodiversity.
Third, farming migratory fish can never be "organic" because their confinement would curtail their biological need to swim far distances. Salmon, for example, are hatched in freshwater and spend their adult lives at sea before returning to their birth rivers to spawn and die—a journey that takes years and covers thousands of miles. Inhibiting a fish’s natural, instinctual behavior goes against the principles of organic farming, which demand that farmers serve as stewards of animal welfare. Yet, surprisingly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has not ruled out this practice of allowing producers to farm migratory fish in captivity.
Finally, if the new regulations proceed as anticipated, they would allow producers to use wild-caught fish and their by-products—fishmeal and fish oil—in feed. This flies in the face of organic farming’s foundational requirement that all animals are fed a 100 percent organic diet. What’s worse is that feeding farmed fish wild-caught fish and by-products would increase pressure on already over-exploited and recovering fisheries, decreasing the food supply of a wide range of native species. This is clearly inconsistent with organic methods of production.
Center for Food Safety’s Report demonstrates the impossibility of rectifying these critical problems and it makes a compelling case for the USDA to withdraw its plans to allow certified organic ocean-based fish farming. To do less would be irresponsible organic policy-making. Permitting “organic” fish farming at sea would put the entire U.S. organic industry in jeopardy by weakening the integrity of the USDA "organic" label. This would be an extreme insult to organic producers and consumers across America.